Leading Article: New landmark on the path to peace

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YESTERDAY'S initialling of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan is the most impressive evidence yet of the momentum achieved by the Middle East peace process. It came only three days after the death of Nachson Waxman, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic movement. Far from being checked by that tragedy, Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and King Hussein of Jordan realised the importance of clinching negotiations that yesterday reached their moving conclusion in Amman.

The two other major landmarks on the road to peace in the Middle East were the treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979, and last year's agreement between Israel and the PLO on limited autonomy for the Palestinians in Jericho and Gaza.

There was a world of difference between the warmth that Mr Rabin showed towards the Jordanian king yesterday, and the obvious reluctance with which he shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn just over a year ago. His genuine admiration of the king's courage in pursuing peace with Israel was evident: Jordan, too, has its Islamic fundamentalists who regard all such moves as betrayal. King Hussein's own grandfather, King Abdullah, was assassinated in 1951 at least partly because of his conciliatory attitude to the new state of Israel. Rather less courage was required in this instance from Israel's leaders, since the government's peace talks with Jordan commanded broad political and popular support. Earlier, secret Israeli contacts with Jordan were much riskier.

The potential gains are considerable. Where security is concerned, Israel has further protected its eastern flank. On the economic and political fronts, the establishment of normal relations opens a prospect of increased trade between the two countries and an easier passage for Israel's exports to the Gulf states.

Historic though yesterday's agreement was, it will be dwarfed by a comparable deal between Israel and its once most implacable enemy in the region, Syria. The Syrian leader, President Assad, is unlikely to have his agenda significantly changed by events in Jordan. Yet it will be that much easier for him to clinch a deal with Israel when two Arab states rather than just Egypt have already trodden the same path.

Equally, territorial concessions to Syria will be more readily accepted by Israeli public opinion if they fit logically into an interlocking regional settlement. Rejectionists of every hue will go on trying to derail the peace process. The further it progresses, the more irreversible it becomes.